“The Victorian house became home to psychological demons. Each house was a vessel, a lid clamped down on a stew of powerful emotions, both personal and cultural—fear, dread, trauma, anxiety, disgust, repulsion, grief, guilt—meant to be shoved to the back of a dark closet and forgotten. What the house contained, thought, always threatened to seep out, no matter how strong the desire to subdue and repress it. Like Pandora’s box, it exerted a perverse allure, roused the irresistible impulse to raise the lid, peer inside, discover the secret, penetrate the mystery. What haunted these houses were memories that refused to die.”
— Sarah Burns, “Better for Haunts“
The old Victorian house which I was born in lives in my mind in its various stages of rot. I have impossible memories of being a baby and a small child within it. These mix and confuse with memories of visiting, exploring, watching it decay and collapse in on itself. The rose-patterned wallpaper of my bedroom is vibrant and pink, and then stained with piss-colored blotches of water damage, the windows whole and then cracked. I am little, living there. Then back as a twelve-year-old when it is vacant and falling apart. I remember being there in the winter as a child, hovering over a space heater with my mother and father beside me. The heater makes a burn hole in the green carpet. Then my parents are divorced and there are towels and blankets over the windows. My father sleeps off a hangover on the stained and burned green carpet in an empty room with nothing but a mattress and TV on the floor. The kitchen is clean and new. The faucet is leaking, the kitchen covered in roach shit.
Victorian houses have become a symbol in the American consciousness of ghosts and hauntings. Specters are usually feminine, wronged, and abused women who wander the house, still chained to the site of their torment. Hysteria was a common diagnosis for women in the Victorian era. Doctors often prescribed these women, relegated to the domestic sphere, bed rest to cure their nerves when depression or anxiety crept up on them. Sleep, rest, and staying indoors were prescribed as antidotes. For some, even the exertion of writing was not allowed. If their condition worsened insanity was not an uncommon diagnosis.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story published in 1892 about this phenomenon. The main character of the story, a woman who has been diagnosed with hysteria, is taken by her husband to a country home where she is isolated. Her husband forbids her from writing, but she keeps a secret journal documenting her experiences. For much of her time there, her husband is away and she is locked in a room with a horrible yellow wallpaper. There are chains attached to the floor. The wallpaper seems to move and change and the main character becomes convinced that there is a woman moving behind it at night, trying to get out. As the story progresses, we can’t quite tell if the woman is slipping, or discovering some truth about the home, the women behind the wallpaper, herself. Gilman wrote this story directly after she herself had been given a hysteria diagnosis and was put on bedrest.
Stories about the Victorian house are often rife with distrust of one’s own memory, distrust of the house, and the house as a material embodiment of memory, a physical site for memory to be enacted upon. “The Little Room,” written in 1895 by Madeline Yale Wynne, is about a little room in a Victorian house that changes. No one in the home can agree what the room is, what it looks like, what it was used for. The main character’s husband does not believe what she sees in the room, believes she is going mad. Madness, hysteria, and distrust of one’s own subject position, particularly woman’s subject positions, are all hallmarks of stories about the Victorian house. These stories do not emerge, however, out of nowhere and nothing.
Victorian homes were erected in post Civil War America, particularly in the North East, as a sign of wealth, prosperity, and a return to normalcy after the war. The homes were large and ornate with detailed ginger-breading. They were full of ornate, expensive furniture, and stuffed to the brim with vanity objects. But while Northern Elites were prospering, the South took an economic downturn, and at the same time immigrants to the Northern states were packed together in tenement houses and suffered extreme poverty. The houses, then, were not only symbols of wealth, excess, and prosperity, but also of hardship.
“These disparities made wealth a very visible experience—and drew attention to the rampant corruption that was embedded in this system of growth,” Krystal D’Costa writes in “Why are Victorian Houses Haunted?”
As America entered the twentieth century, the American Victorian home drew the ire of those seeking to criticize the bloatedness of the period. These homes quickly became the McMansions of the era as critics such as Talbot Hamlin decried the style as a blight upon the American landscape, labeling them “wooden monstrosities.”
These wooden monstrosities, as they fell out of style and grew increasingly vacant, came to symbolize wealth without substance, abuse, secrets, and bourgeois repression. The female ghosts that haunted them became the embodiment of these associations. When Victorian homes were at their height, women acted as their keepers, keepers of the domestic sphere and of the bourgeois values that occupied it. They were sights of purity, and projected an image for their families. When the houses became sullied, their gilded veneer pulled back to reveal a rotten interior, the women became sullied with them.
For those who have lived in Victorian houses, or for anyone who still watches cheesy Halloween ghost films, the associations are still there. The Victorian house in my head is haunted, and I am the one who haunts it. I wander through it, and through memories wondering if they are real or imagined, attempting to locate them in a time and space, reconsidering the pattern of the wallpaper, how it looked, wondering if I can properly remember the little room. If I can not, then the memory evaporates, and all I am left with is my own female hysteria.
For others, the haunting may be less material and real, but our consciousness is still plagued, obsessed with the decay of the previous iteration of the ruling class, pathologizing them. When I scroll through my TikTok feed in the middle of the night I often come across “haunted” remodeled homes, either Victorians or old cottages or colonials. The comments are full of people claiming to see the home in their dreams, to know where the staircase is located, to have lived there in a past life. On YouTube, videos of decaying shopping malls, symbols of a once prosperous America, are becoming increasingly popular. The malls are eerie when empty and hollowed out, giving the videos a liminal quality which perhaps reflects our upsets about the emptiness and transience of the economic boom which gave rise to these malls. Paranormal movies are now just as easily set in suburban McMansions with housewives and teenage girls for ghosts, suggesting perhaps that the moral and economic decay we associate with the Victorian period, as well as the trauma, abuse, and hysteria, is creeping closer and closer to home.
Katie Livingston can be reached at email@example.com.